Named for a Mayan term that means “little cut”, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve is one of Belize’s most popular destinations for snorkeling and scuba diving. Hol Chan is a natural break or cut in the reef that attracts large numbers of sharks, turtles, fish, and other marine life because it allows them to easily cross to the other side of the reef.
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is an enormous protected zone just off the southern tip of the island of Ambergris Caye, measuring some 18 square kilometers (7 square miles) in size. The reserve is divided into four zones, including zone D, better known as Shark Ray Alley. More than 160 species of fish have been documented in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, 40 types of coral, two species of seagrasses, three species of sea turtle, 40 types of coral, and a cornucopia of marine life like spotted eagle rays, southern sting rays, lobsters, sea anemones, and moray eels.
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is particularly popular because of the shallow, crystal clear waters and bright seabed, making it very easy to spot a rainbow of marine life in its natural habitat. Originally used primarily for commercial fishing, the government of Belize, in conjunction with several international non-government organizations, decided to protect the area beginning in the late 1980s. Today, only very restricted fishing is permitted by special license in some areas of the reserve.
Back when commercial fishing was the primary activity in the area, many fishermen would clean their nets in what is now Shark Ray Alley. The abundance of cast-off food drew large numbers of sharks and rays into the area, now the primary attraction for snorkelers who can easily spot the creatures against the shallow, sandy sea floor. Hol Chan also includes large areas of mangrove-lined lagoons, particularly important for nesting and breeding sites of many of the reserve’s inhabitants, including sea turtles, snapper, angelfish, parrotfish, and barracuda.
Zone A (the main “cut” that gave the reserve its name) is located just a 15-minute sail from the town of San Pedro. Zone B is less popular with tourists but is a great place to see enormous seagrass beds that serve as fishing grounds for stingrays, manatees, and fish. Zone C is primarily seagrass and mangrove forests along the shore. Zone D, known as Shark Ray Alley, is the most popular place to visit as it is easy to spot rays measuring up to four feet across. Some rays have become so accustomed to visitors that they will even approach divers in hopes of receiving a snack.
Snorkeling Tour to Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Black Orchid resort offers a guided snorkeling tour of Hol Chan where visitors can swim with nurse sharks, southern stingrays, and other marine life in three different areas of the reserve.